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By Neal Rogers
Tour de France organizers ASO may be regretting the choice of music played after the peloton rolled out of Lavelanet at the start of stage 12 Thursday.
Only 45 minutes after the news of Ricardo Riccò’s positive test for red-blood cell booster CERA rocked the start village, the public address system blared Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” — fitting perhaps as the swansong for a defiant young rider who rocketed into the spotlight while simultaneously thumbing his nose at the sport’s establishment.
Yet during this painful and transitional period wistfully referred to as a new era for cycling, it was the twisted mindset of cycling’s dark and none-too-distant past that led Riccò to a pair of stage wins before he was ultimately hauled away in a team car Thursday morning flanked by French national police.
Nicknamed “The Cobra,” with a tattoo to match, Riccò made a name for himself with his electrifying attacks in the mountains, incendiary comments about his rivals and a self-proclaimed idolatry of controversial fallen Italian star Marco Pantani.
Riccò’s positive wasn’t the first doping story of this year’s Tour, but given his two stage wins and leads in both the KOM and best young rider’s competitions, it had the biggest impact on the race. It also once again revealed the sport’s ongoing struggle to rid itself of the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs.
Systematic doping — a thing of the past?When news hit on July 11 that Liquigas rider Manuel Beltran’s stage 1 urine sample tested positive, it was received with regret, if not complete surprise. A 37-year-old veteran, Beltran was viewed as a product of cycling’s doping era, a rider at the end of his career incapable of giving up on his old-school methods.
But at 24 years old Riccò was a rider for the future, signified by his lead in the best young rider’s competition. And though he had reportedly been targeted by French anti-doping agency AFLD, fans eager to embrace a new face at a Tour de France low on star power hoped Riccò’s stirring performances were rides they could believe in.
“It’s even more disappointing and frustrating because Riccò is from the new generation,” said Columbia team director Rolf Aldag, who confessed to doping during the ‘90s while riding with the German Telekom squad. “We’ve been hoping for changes in the sport. It’s obvious now that not everyone has heard the same message. The only positive thing we can take from this is that it shows that the tests are working.”
Aldag also took aim at Riccò’s Saunier Duval team, which had taken three stage wins with Riccò and Leonardo Piepoli, who won stage 10 atop the Hautacam. Saunier Duval also led the team classification Wednesday only to leave the race in disgrace just prior to Thursday’s stage 12 roll out.
“We’ve learned a lot from cycling’s past, and we have a clear view of what the sport needs to do,” Aldag said. “But not every team has the same view.”
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Tour chief Christian Prudhomme was asked if he believed Riccò’s positive might be a sign of systematic team doping within Saunier Duval. Prudhomme said he had no evidence that the team had a doping program but added, “I did find the stage to Hautacam surprising, just like everybody else. They were looking a little too impressive.”
The news of Riccò’s positive test hit the Tour just one day after Barloworld’s Moises Duenas — winner of the 2006 Tour de l’Avenir — was sent home for testing positive for EPO during the stage 4 time trial. French gendarmes found syringes, needles and blood bags in Duenas’ hotel room Wednesday, bringing the team management’s claim of ignorance into suspicion. However Barloworld team manager Claudio Corti assured VeloNews that team was in no way aware or involved.
“The forbidden medicines were only in Duenas’ bags,” Corti said. “This was a complete surprise and shock.”
Pressed to explain how team staff couldn’t have known one of its riders had doping products in his hotel room given the interaction between riders and their roommates and staff, Corti answered, “We keep distance between the team and Moises’ behavior. The medicines were absolutely not prescribed by the team doctors, so it’s only a problem with Moises. And now there is a police investigation, and we will support them and wait for the result.”
Team CSC-Saxo Bank team manager Bjarne Riis said it would be wrong to presume that Barloworld team management had any knowledge of doping products in its rider’s possession.
“You can’t know what is in a rider’s suitcase,” said Riis, who, like Aldag, admitted last year to engaging in doping at Team Telekom during the EPO heyday of the 1990s. “I don’t go into a rider’s suitcase, that’s a private thing, they can have as much as they want in the suitcase, but it doesn’t help them, because they are tested all over.”
The “new cycling” — fact or fiction?Reactions to the positive tests of the past two days varied; however riders and directors were in agreement that the test results prove that the system is working.
“It’s clearly a disappointment,” Hincapie said. “We’ve said in the past that we do what we can, but we can’t speak for everybody. For such a big rider to go positive is a disappointment but we have to stick to our guns, keep doing what we’re doing, take care of our own and hope that this can turn into a positive sign that nobody can cheat in our sport.”
Hincapie’s Columbia teammate Mark Cavendish, another young rider pegged for stardom after multiple stage wins at this year’s Tour, won Thursday’s 168km stage into Narbonne and thereby became the de facto spokesman for the peloton at the day’s post-race press conference.
“It shows that the tests are working,” Cavendish said. “People are getting caught, that shows the sport is changing for the better. I’d like the changes to carry on as they are. It’s a good thing.”
Asked if a positive result from a young rider such as Riccò was a sign that the “new cycling” is a myth, Riis answered, “It doesn’t matter who it is. The fact is that something has to be done. Hopefully the controls are going to continue like they are. In the long term, this is what we need, and it’s going to end up a positive.”
Almost ten years to the day after the 1998 Festina affair blew the lid off of EPO use and systematic doping programs, this Tour’s three positives – all originating from the first four days of racing – have some wondering if a “new cycling” is possible.
While teams like CSC, Columbia, Garmin-Chipotle and Astana have financed independent blood-monitoring programs, some question whether that “new cycling” will ever occur until doping in sport is criminalized internationally, as it is in France, and the risks outweigh the incentives.
Following the raid on his room, Duenas was charged with “use and possession of plants and poisonous substances” and could face up to two years in prison and $5000 fine. He could also be jailed for up to three years for the importation of banned goods.
Ricco’s hotel room was searched Thursday, and he was taken to a police station where he was interrogated and detained overnight.
Should Riccò’s B sample come back positive, he could face a two-year suspension, as well as criminal charges.
But whatever the outcome, the damage to the sport has, once again, already been done.
Beltran, Duenas and Riccò may have done things “their way,” but they won’t be the only ones paying the price.